CAW pushing for deal with Ford in contract talks with automakers

TORONTO – The head of the Canadian Auto Workers says the union is going to focus its negotiations with the Big Three automakers on reaching a deal with Ford.

Ken Lewenza told a Toronto news conference Sunday that Ford has shown a “clear willingness” to reach a new contract and the union will work around the clock to achieve that, hoping to use a Ford agreement as leverage with General Motors and Chrysler.

Though Lewenza did not say if Ford has agreed to a union proposal that would lower wages for new hires but still allow them to progress to full pay over time, he suggested the company isn’t set against the idea.

“Ford isn’t philosophically opposed to anything other than to say, ‘Folks, keep your costs down, keep it manageable,’ and (then) we can share in the success with the company together.'”

He said Ford “hasn’t promised anything” but added the company has indicated it agrees in principle to some of the union’s issues, which he said are being reviewed for possible “tweaking.”

The union has threatened strike action if there is no agreement by 11:59 p.m. eastern time Monday. Lewenza said talks are “fluid” and he is confident a deal can be reached before then.

The automakers entered the bargaining round seeking a permanent wage reduction for fresh employees, similar to a deal the companies reached in the U.S.

But the CAW has been adamant it will never agree to a pay structure that creates “two tiers” of employees.

Though talks with G.M. and Chrysler continue, Lewenza said the CAW is putting all its available resources into talks with Ford as it hopes a contract breakthrough is in sight.

If a Ford agreement is completed then the union will take it as a blueprint to the other companies in the “final hours” of negotiations to try to nail down two additional contracts, he said.

Lewenza said the union is open to keeping talks going past the Monday deadline if they’re productive.

“If we see light at the end of the tunnel then we’re going to keep working until it shines on an agreement,” he said.

But he said if that tunnel ends with a brick wall then the CAW will put its near-21,000 members on strike at one or all of the automakers’ plants.

“That is the last tool in the bargaining toolbox,” he said.

There have been hundreds of meetings with the three automobile giants since negotiations started 3 1/2 weeks ago, but talks didn’t begin in earnest until Labour Day, Lewenza said.

Chrysler spokeswoman LouAnn Gosselin said in an email the company is “very concerned” the CAW is focusing its efforts on talks with Ford, while G.M. said only it continues to bargain with the union.

Ford did not immediately respond to request for comment Sunday night.